Love and Terror in the God Encounter
The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
By David Hartman
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001, 219 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 12, 2011
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was and still is the leading rabbinical figure of Modern Orthodox Judaism. He was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, the senior lecturer on Talmud. He was the advisor to the Rabbinical Council of America, the organization of about 1,000 Orthodox rabbis. Since many of today's Modern Orthodox rabbis graduated from Yeshiva University and belong to the Rabbinical Council of America, his influence upon the rabbis and, hence, upon their congregations has been great. Who was this man? David Hartman, one of today's leading thinkers, a rabbi and Ph.D., evaluates the thinking of Rabbi Soloveitchik in this interesting and revealing book.
This volume was first published in 2001 and reissued in 2004. It was the winner of two National Jewish Book Awards. In his more recent book about Rabbi Soloveitchik, The God Who Hates Lies, Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition, published in 2011, Dr. Hartman points out that Modern Orthodox Judaism has in many respects been frozen in suspended animation, refusing to budge and grow despite moral imperatives and logic, resulting in many people being harmed. A prime example of this phenomenon is the failure of Modern Orthodox leaders to address the problem of the aguna, the "chained one," the wife whose husband refuses to give her a Jewish divorce and who is unable to remarry. This situation exists because of an interpretation of the Torah that only a man can give a divorce. It exists today because of the ruling issued by Rabbi Soloveitchik, Dr. Hartman points out, that the age-old interpretation and practice should not be changed despite the harm that it inflicts upon many women. I described this issue in my review of this book and in an article about what Dr. Hartman considers "Rabbi Soloveitchik's Mistake," which can be found, among other sites, in my website at www.booksnthoughts.com. The problem, in short, is that despite his profound learning, Rabbi Soloveitchik was very conservative in his thinking and practices and insisted that even when matters do not seem to make sense Jews must, as the Protestant theologian Soren Kierkegaard stated, take a leap of faith.
In this earlier book, Dr. Hartman analyses several of Rabbi Soloveitchik's writings. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the Halakhic Man, the title he gave one of his most influential writings, is a Jew who follows the teachings of the Torah as interpreted by the ancient rabbis. A Jew, in his view, "studies halakhah (Jewish law) simply because it is an extension of God's word." Not because, as the great sage Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) wrote, to acquire true ideas and to improve oneself and society.
Dr. Hartman explains that Rabbi Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man "is surrounded by clear normative principles. His perception of the world is firmly anchored." He "is controlled by the normative halakhic framework…. Halakhah defines not only what halakhic man will see, but also the emotions with which he responds to prosperity and tragedy," even to the terrible tragedy of the "chained woman."
Rabbi Soloveitchik gives as his model the story of Rabbi Elijah Pruznu whose beloved daughter was dying, who asked her doctor how many minutes his daughter had until she would die. When he received the doctor's reply, he returned to his room to put on the tefillin, which Orthodox Jews wear for the morning service, because once his daughter died he would, by the halakha, be unable to wear them until she was buried. Then he took them off and went to his daughter's room just in time to see her die.
Hartman comments, "There is something abnormal – one might even say inhuman – about R. Elijah's behavior. One would normally expect a father to want to be with his daughter in her final moments. When a child is dying, one would not expect a father to worry about such a question as, What mitzvot (biblical commands) will I be unable to perform when my status changes to a mourner?" This is the kind of indifference that prompted Rabbi Soloveitchik to rule that the chained woman must stay shackled.
Rabbi Soloveitchik sees the Halakhic Man as not "the harmonious individual…but the torn soul and the shattered spirit…involved in an irresolvable contradiction." The Jew, according to his view of Judaism acknowledges "total dependency and helplessness before God, that only God is mighty and not they, that God is holy and they are but dust and ashes."
These are the views of Rabbi Soloveitchik and he has many followers. But they are not the teachings, as he admits, of many others, such as Maimonides. His critics, who are mentioned in this book, say that he misunderstood Judaism.